10 Strategies to Supercharge Annual Fundraising Success in 2021

annual fundraising success

Okay. Year-end fundraising is over. You’ve done your thanking due diligence. Now what do you need for annual fundraising success?

If you’re on a fiscal year, you’ve still got money to raise to reach your fundraising goal. If you’re on a calendar year, you’ve got to plan to do even better next year so you can reach your mission goals.

Ready for some tips to plan for the next 12 months? Before we get to the strategic tips, you need to commit to writing a plan. One with goals (why), measurable objectives (how), strategies (what) and tactics (when, where and who).

Plan Your Dive; Dive Your Plan

Everything you plan to do should be tied to an outcome. Before diving into a strategy, ask yourself: “What will success look like?”

BASIC RULE #1: There is a marketing/fundraising continuum that moves from awareness… to interest… to engagement… to investment. Which outcome(s) are reached by the strategy you’re contemplating, and what measurement are you applying to determine whether you’ve reached that outcome? For example:

  • 750 new people (measurement) visited our website (outcome = awareness created)
  • 250 people (measurement) joined our mailing list (outcome = interest exhibited)
  • 100 people (measurement) attended our free virtual event (outcome = engagement demonstrated)
  • 75 new donors (measurement) joined our monthly giving club (outcome = investment enacted) with average gifts of $10/month (measurement).

BASIC RULE #2: No strategy exists in a vacuum. Every time you devise a strategy and envision an outcome, ask yourself “then what?” In other words, what will you do next with the new folks who join your mailing list… attend your event… make a first-time gift? Once you devise that follow-up strategy, again ask yourself “then what?” The goal is to move folks along the marketing/fundraising continuum to deeper and deeper levels of connection.

Once you know your desired outcomes, here are some particularly effective strategies – the “what you should do” — you’ll want to apply to build strong, lasting relationships with supporters.

2021 will be another unusual year. Many activities will still be on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic and economic and social turmoil will take its toll. Yet philanthropy prevailed last year, and there’s no reason to think this will change. As a percentage of GDP, giving in the U.S. has hovered remarkably close to the same 2% ever since this began being measured after WWII. What should change, however, are some of the strategies you prioritize to reach your goals.

You really do need to adapt to the times. And, as Bob Dylan famously said, “The times, they are a’ changin.” Change is constant. Yet change has accelerated post digital revolution. The way people get their information… how people communicate… the tools at your disposal to reach out and engage with folks… what you prioritize in 2021 will be very different than what you prioritized in 2011. 

What a difference a decade makes! And, in fact, what a difference right now just a single year makes.

In this two-part article we’ll focus on 10 strategies to help you make the most of the year ahead. The first five are about thoughtfully setting yourself up with infrastructure and content that will help you effectively get the word out. 

Right now, focus on a partnership between marketing and fundraising staff to carefully:


  1. Craft your most relevant message.
  2. Collect and tell compelling stories.
  3. Build and maintain mailing lists.
  4. Diversify communication channels.
  5. Hone email strategy through mobile optimization.


  1. Expand monthly giving.
  2. Engage in peer-to-peer fundraising.
  3. Host engaging virtual events.
  4. Make more phone and Zoom calls.
  5. Optimize your website for donations.

1. Craft Relevant Messaging to Fit the Times

For every nonprofit, there’s something about what’s going on in the world right now that directly impacts your work. Think about what that one thing is for you. That’s your current case for support. It may be somewhat different than your pre-pandemic case, or even last year’s case. However current events are impacting your organization, including the lives of your supporters and beneficiaries, that’s your elephant in the room. Failing to talk about it won’t make it disappear. Your constituents can handle the truth – heck, they’ll demand the truth – and telling your particular truth is what makes your message relevant, authentic, meaningful and believable

The same old prose you’ve recycled numerous times over the past – and no reason not to if it was working – is going to appear stale and off key right now. The times we’re in are most definitely not ‘business as usual.’ Sharpen your key messaging to reflect today’s reality. And before putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, carefully consider your audience so you can emphasize content relevant to your target.

Let’s look at some examples:

annual fundraising success

Bend the Arc echoes the language in the email that drove folks to this donation landing page. It stated simply: “NEW VIDEO From 2016 to 2020 — we’ve kept our promise.” They know their audience, and what they’ve done is mirror the message constituents have been hearing in the news. They’ve even echoed the Biden campaign’s fighting for the “Soul of a Nation” slogan, tying their ongoing mission to today’s social justice movement.

annual fundraising success

The ACLU looks forward to the rights donors can protect in the coming year, reflecting current issues keeping folks awake at night while adhering to their core civil liberties mission.

The American Conservatory Theater promotes their virtual theatrical production, while simultaneously demonstrating their commitment to helping constituencies about whom their supporters are concerned. They may not be direct, front line responders, but they’re nonetheless crafting a relevant response to support folks impacted by current events with free tickets (of course, donors can underwrite these).

The Adventure Project slightly shifted their message to make the point more people are in poverty than ever before.

You’ll notice the example above also makes the donor the hero. This is a part of your messaging strategy that should be evergreen: Make donors a central part of your mission
Donors’ happiness is your happiness. When they find meaning, your meaning is affirmed. You exist because they exist. Your values are their values. Everything you do and say boils down to feelings and values that are passionately held. The values your organization enacts must match the values your donor holds.

2. Collect and Tell Compelling Current Stories

Still tell storiespeople are wired for stories. Consequently they’re the most effective tool you have to communicate effectively and emotionally. Yet don’t use pre-COVID era stories right now. They’ll ring hollow. Tell stories that make a fundraising offer related to today’s top challenges:

  • Demonstrate current problems that will resonate with your constituencies because (a) they’re related to what’s in the news; (b) they keep them up at night, or (c) they’re what they’ve always cared about (and may feel more important than ever right now).
  • Describe new solutions you’re applying today to address new problems. 
  • Show the recent impact your work is having.
  • Indicate how people can join with you today to create a happy ending to the story of today.

Where do you find these current stories? Begin to develop a storytelling culture by asking folks – staff, clients, board members, other donors and volunteers – to share their stories every place you can think of. Have a ‘story time’ during meetings and Zoom calls. Ask people for stories every time you speak with them on the phone. Collect these stories in a story bank so they’re there to draw upon when you need to craft an appeal.

Here’s one example to show a ‘story’ can be told with just a photo (worth 1,000 words) and a simple caption:

annual fundraising success

The International Rescue Committee changed their usual refugee assistance message to incorporate the impact of COVID-19 as a means to increase urgency. The use of the compelling photo, and the brief story of families facing frigid winter weather and needing supplies and medicine, work together to make a compelling, relevant appeal.

3. Build and Maintain Mailing Lists

Have you heard of the 40-40-20 Rule (get a free e-book on the topic here)? It holds that 40 percent of a direct mailing campaign’s success is dependent upon the list; 40 percent of the success comes from the offer (messaging; stories); and 20 percent of the success is due to the creative aspects of the campaign. You can have the best written, best designed fundraising appeal in the world, and it will still fail if you send to the wrong, or too few, people. So building your mailing list, and keeping it clean, should be a perennial priority.

Five core strategies should be included in your plan:

    1. Acquire new mail addresses. Generally you’ll find these in your house file (non-donors connected to your organization in other ways) or by renting or exchanging lists (usually done through a list broker). You can also ask for referrals from your stakeholders or research lists of donors to other organizations (e.g., same locality or similar cause).
    2. Correct existing addresses that may have changed. The U.S. Census Bureau reports 12% of Americans move annually. Learn about how to use National Change of Address (NCOA) services here.
    3. Eliminate records with deceased people. Not only is this mailing to dead people a waste of your resources, but it really ticks off the people they left behind.
    4. Clean records to remove duplicates, change records where there’s been a divorce, connect family members, as appropriate, and include correct personal salutations.
    5. Purge inactive records. There’s no one right time span for every organization. I like to purge donors who haven’t given for five years and prospects who’ve never given after three years. But you may want to simply segment your list and do something different with folks who haven’t been responding. Mailings cost money, so do what seems prudent for your charity. With email, you may want to purge more frequently. You can first send an email asking folks if they want to stay on your list. If they don’t respond, do them the courtesy of unsubscribing them. Remember, if you have too many ‘undeliverable’ addresses it will cause you to be flagged as spam.

When it comes to email, keep it out of spam. Just as you need a strategy to acquire new snail mail addresses, you need a strategy to acquire emails. But it must be permission-based. If people don’t give you permission to send to them via email, you shouldn’t do so. That’s why the US has a CAN-SPAM act, Canada has Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation, the European Union has the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), and the UK has the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations of 2003. Pay attention. Email marketing services take these laws and policies seriously. If you don’t, your emails will be marked as spam. And you may also have your account terminated.

There are two types of permission. When people have an existing relationship as a customer, donor, or member, they give implied permission to send fundraising emails. When people expressly permit you to send them email, for example by entering their email address in a subscribe form, they give explicit permission. Don’t simply upload lists of emails you’re given by others. Here is more information about how to improve your email deliverability.

4. Diversify Communication Channels

Putting one’s eggs in a single basket is seldom a good strategy. As tempted as you may be to simply send email, especially this year with budgets and staff pared back, remember people access and respond to communications differently. The medium that works for John may not work for Mary. You have many choices among multiple communication channels, so why stick to just one when you don’t know where your constituents get their information? The greater your diversification, the greater your chance of reaching those who will engage and invest with you. As just one example of the perils of focusing too heavily on a single strategy, did you know over 20% of nonprofit emails are sent to spam folders? If that happens to your email – one in five don’t receive it — wouldn’t you want to hedge your bets by sending the same fundraising appeal via other channels as well?

When you don’t know your donor preferences, multi-channel fundraising covers your bases. Additionally, messages conveyed via one platform reinforce messages shared on another platform. In fact, research shows multichannel fundraising significantly increases donor value. Per research from NextAfter:

  • Multi-channel donors are worth 212% more than any donor who gives only online or only through the mail.
  • Multi-channel communication can make a donor 29% more likely to give again, even if they only give offline.

Research from Blackbaud Target Analytics also shows how multichannel messaging improves donor retention. When you’re seen in multiple places, you simply stick with folks longer. And vice-versa. That’s a pretty big deal!

5. Hone Your Email Strategy by Optimizing for Mobile

Email is becoming more and more a ‘go to’ strategy. Direct mail is most certainly not dead, but last year found more organizations strapped for resources. Plus the post office became less dependable. If you’ve not designated someone on staff to assure your emails looks great and are easy to read and act upon when accessed via a smart phone or tablet, it’s time to get serious about this. Did you know 46% of folks today open email on mobile devices? To successfully compete in today’s philanthropic landscape, you have to be optimized for mobile. If you neglect to do this, you’re potentially leaving money on the table from almost half your constituency. 

Most nonprofits today are aware of strategies available to assure your email gets opened, but… then fail to consider what the email looks like if someone opens it on a phone. What if it makes folks instantly click ‘close’ or ‘delete?’ Not ideal.

If you’re the ‘designated someone,’ you shouldn’t have to become an expert on responsive design. That’s too much to ask of any but the largest organizations. Instead, make sure you have a mobile-responsive, user-centric database and CRM, donation forms and email software powering your campaigns. There are dozens of options you can find online via search; once you’re set up, it will make your life much easier moving forward.

Trust, but verify. Whether you delegate to in-house staff, outsource or simply rely on purchased software, regularly test for yourself. Mistakes happen, and while you think your email is user-friendly it may offer users a frustrating experience. Try it out yourself, on different devices, especially preceding an important campaign. 

Closing Thoughts

Let’s close Part 1 with a reminder the entire world is in freefall today; it’s not just charities. Your donors are receiving requests for donations from small businesses and neighborhood restaurants. They may be receiving ‘go fund me’ appeals from individual people they know who need support. So you don’t have just being a ‘do-gooder nonprofit’ to fall back on. You must really make a cogent, relevant case for support. You should always do this, of course. The difference now is you can’t get away with simply being ‘a good cause.’  

“What will your essential service be? What really matters to you? The fact that you’re alive means you’ve been given a reprieve to think deeply about that question. How will you use what matters in service to yourself, your community and the world?”

— Oprah Winfrey

Stay tuned for Part 2: “5 Priority Nonprofit Fundraising Strategies for 2021.”

annual fundraising appeal

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.

Claire Axelrad
Claire Axelrad
Claire Axelrad

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